Heart in Yoga

It is fashionable to bash intellect in modern spiritual circles. One often hears: “Heart, not brain”. Or some variation of it. Interestingly, although “gut feel” is used in popular discourse, it does not seem to be popular in the spiritual circles. I wonder why!

Is using one’s brain actually detrimental to spiritual growth? What do the classical texts on Yoga say on this?

The notion of heart, clearly, is not restricted to the heart organ. It is commonly understood as a reference to feelings and emotions. The organ is just a pump to circulate blood. The changes in heart rate could be a marker for feelings and emotions.

Brain is the seat of intellect and feelings. Scientists and Sages alike are in agreement that brain dead people most likely do not feel. The scriptures also seem to be unanimous in their emphasis on discriminative knowledge and critical reasoning to spiritual development.

Intellect in Yoga

Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali state this explicitly and clearly. Avidya (incorrect knowledge) is the source of bondage and suffering. Therefore, the means for liberation (from bondage and suffering) is Viveka (discernment or discriminative knowledge). Correct knowledge eradicates incorrect knowledge and aids in detachment, which in turn sets us free from bondage such as attachment, aversion and fear and the consequent suffering. What is the source of Viveka? Meditation, logical inference and testimony from experts (the sages, philosophers) are the means to Viveka. And what is Yoga? Yoga is a type of meditation (Samādhi) that aids in understanding the particulars of the objects around us (Tattva). Generalised knowledge can be acquired through logical inference from the particulars. In other words, Yoga is a tool to acquire and being established in Viveka.

A natural result of being established in Viveka is Sattva. Sattva is the state of existence characterised by tranquility, clarity and lightness. Read more about Sattva here. A spiritually developed person is Sattvic in thought and action. And as I explained elsewhere, Yoga Sūtras state that being established in Sattva is equivalent to liberation. Now, the “heart-not-brain people” might gloat, “See, I told you so!”. Well, hold on folks!

Gīta is more emphatic than Yoga Sūtras on the importance of intellect. For example, Verses 2.60–2.63 state (Source: Eknath Easwaran’s Bhagavad Gita):

(2.60) When you keep thinking about sense objects, attachment comes. (2.61) Attachment breeds desire, the lust of possession that burns to anger. (2.62) Anger clouds judgement; you can no longer learn from the past mistakes. (2.63) Lost is the power to choose between what is wise and what is unwise, and your life is utter waste.

In other words, even Lord Kṛṣna cannot help you if you lose your brain!

Window to the Mind

Heart does play an important role in Yoga and it gets a special mention in Yoga Sūtras.

(Sutra 3.34) hṛdaye citta samvit / through Saṁyama on the heart region knowledge of the mind is acquired

Note: Saṁyama is the process of meditating on an object in the Yogic way. Saṁyama refers to the successive stages of increasingly intensive concentration, starting with Dhārana (the stage of concentration where the mind is filled with thoughts related to the object) culminating in the intense stage of Samādhi (unbroken concentration on a particular feature of the object so intense that even the meditating self is forgotten).

What is this Heart that is referred to in this Sutra? Āranya explains in his commentary. Heart here refers to the innermost region in chest, where one “feels” pleasure (e.g. when one falls in love or when one is genuinely happy) and anxiety or sadness (e.g. when one loses a loved one or when one is facing danger). The brain is no doubt the center mental actions (knowledge, thoughts, etc). However, it is impossible to locate the origin of the mental actions and meditate on them. It is easier to meditate on the feeling on the chest region and following it.

Think about it this way. Suppose you hurt your knee. You feel pain. The pain occurs in the brain. It is much easier to “locate” the pain in the knee region than pin point the mental modification that gives rise to this pain feeling. By meditating on the pain “felt on the knee” one could understand the subtle mechanism.

To quote Āranya, through meditation on the heart region, one can watch the actions of the mind and one can realise its various fluctuations.

In other words, heart is a conduit to the mind. If there is a way of asking Patañjali or Kṛṣna, they would probably say, “Heart to Brain” instead of “Heart, not Brain”.

Science of Heart

Vagus nerve innervates all the organs of the viscera and plays an important role in threat response (sympathetic/parasympathetic pathways) and homeostasis (physiological regulation). Vagus is afferent (bring information to the brain) and efferent (carry information from the brain). Threat responses show up as heart and breathing rate changes among other changes in the organs in the viscera (e.g. diverting blood away from gut to conserve energy for flight/flight response). Vagus nerve ends up in nuclei (clusters of neurons) in the brain stem.

Brain stem controls vital functions autonomously and there are strong evolutionary reasons for this. Antonio Damasio proposes in his book The Self Comes to Mind that brain stem, along with hypothalamus and insular cortex make up the protoself. Protoself is the pre-conscious, basic representation of Self. Our physiological parameters need to be in a surprisingly narrow range (homeostasis) for us to be alive and thus, in a way, the functions that collectively maintain homeostasis forms the core of the “self”. Over millions of years of evolution, this simple stimuli-response mechanism to maintain homeostasis added a layer of planning self that, as the phrase indicates, has the ability to plan ahead for scenarios and optimise response so that homeostasis can be maintained robustly in an uncertain and changing environment.

Perhaps, it is not entirely a coincidence to “stay in the present moment” in meditation. One is essentially trying to quieten the planning self. When the planning self is suppressed, what is left is Damasio’s Protoself, the core, irreducible part that defines the fact that we exist. One may draw some parallels to the concept of I-sense in the Yoga Philosophy i.e. the subtle part of the mind over which other mental modifications arise.

It is hard to visualise, locate or trace the Protoself (or I-sense) to its origin in the brain (or mind). However, we can meditate on the “feeling” that is felt in the chest area and trace it to its origin to understand the mind. When out minds are active, it is hard to isolate these subtle feelings. Some degree of preparation through withdrawal from external stimuli and suppression of other mental activity is required.


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